Judge Temporarily Blocks City From Banning Worship in Schools; Churches Rejoice

salsabino.jpg
Sam Levin
Pastor Sal Sabino, left, will be allowed to lead worship inside schools this Sunday.
Thank God!

That's what Pastor Sal Sabino did today when he heard the news that he and other churches may be able to worship in schools this Sunday after all.

The drama around religious groups renting public school space reached new heights today when a federal judge decided to block the city Department of Education from enforcing its ban on churches using schools for worship services. Federal Judge Loretta Preska officially granted a 10-day injunction to the Bronx Household of Faith, which has opposed the city's evictions -- alongside around 60 other churches that would be kicked out under the ban.

Last Sunday was supposed to be the final day these churches could use public schools, but now they might have a bit more time -- as the courts continue to review the ban. (Bloomberg was following through with a Second Circuit Court of Appeals ruling last June that said the city could "bar any religious worship in the schools because it appears to promote a particular faith.")

Since August, congregations knew that they'd be force to find somewhere else to worship if the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case -- which happened in December. At that point, the city extended the deadline to Feb. 12th, giving the churches an additional month to protest. And they took advantage of the opportunity.

As electeds in Albany have explored a possible bill to override the mayor's ban, church leaders have been praying for a temporary hold on the eviction -- so that they aren't forced to worship on the street this Sunday.

Today, their prayers were answered.

"I was expecting something like this to happen, and I thank God it did, but I was doubtful," Pastor Sabino told Runnin' Scared this afternoon.

His church, Heavenly Vision Christian Center, has a location in the Bronx, but hundreds also worship in two school spaces in Manhattan and the Bronx.

He told us that as of this afternoon he is still trying to work out details with the Dept. of Education and secure the necessary permits, but is hopeful that his congregation can meet in its usual location this Sunday. (A city Law Department spokesperson said the DOE will consider permit applications to hold services this weekend in accordance with normal procedures, adding that the DOE is processing permit applications as expeditiously as possible).

They need to be inside, he said. "We have children, we have sick people that come to church...It's a step in the right of direction. We love God for that."

But it's not a permanent solution, he added. "I'm happy about it, but it's only for ten days."

On one side of the debate, the city and its supporters argues that allowing churches to use school space violates the separation of church and state and risks government promoting intolerance. But churches say they are important local institutions that pay rent and are welcoming to anyone.

"I'm a Christian, but I'm not anti-anything. We don't preach hate. We preach love," Pastor Sabino said.

Churches also have the support of Bill de Blasio, public advocate and mayoral hopeful, who sent out a statement this afternoon slamming Bloomberg and praising the court decision: "The courts have rightly ordered Mayor Bloomberg to back off the discriminatory policy of evicting religious groups from public school buildings. All along, this has been a simple issue of fairness. Religious organizations have the same right to rent a room as any other group."

The city will fight back. Jonathan Pines, a city lawyer, said in a statement, "After 16 years of litigation, the federal appeals court agreed with the city that worship in schools raised legitimate concerns about First Amendment violations. This last-minute decision disrupts plans that both the city and congregations worked out months ago. We will seek immediate appellate review."

[SamTLevin / @SamTLevin]

Go to Runnin' Scared for all our latest news coverage.

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